Could edible coffee packaging reduce plastic waste?

Jane Merchant
July 18, 2023
An image of a coffee consumer pouring filtered specialty coffee into a cup with edible coffee packaging in the background in an article on edible packaging and whether edible coffee packaging can reduce plastic waste

In recent years, customer expectations of product packaging have evolved. Demand for petroleum-based plastics has decreased across the board in favour of sustainable alternatives.

According to a 2023 report, most customers are aware of the pitfalls of plastic packaging. However, they still expect packaging to protect the product foremost, with its environmental impact and recyclability being a secondary concern. One reason for this may be consumer confusion about who is primarily responsible for recycling empty packaging. Many assume local governments need to take responsibility but acknowledge the legal framework doesn’t yet exist.

For this reason, among many others, some brands are using packaging that bypasses the need for post-consumption processing altogether. Edible packaging falls into this category and as scientific advances and manufacturing methods improve, such alternatives are becoming more robust and accessible. Notably, the global edible packaging market was valued at $680 million in 2022 and is projected to reach $1,050 million by 2030.

As items such as edible coffee cups become increasingly popular, is the future of coffee packaging likely to be edible, too?

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How long has edible packaging existed?

It was only during the 20th century that most industries around the world switched to petroleum-based packaging. Before then, people had used some form of edible packaging for centuries. Notably, during the 12th century, there is evidence of Chinese sellers using wax in citrus fruits to prevent moisture loss and to promote a shiny surface.

Today’s edible packaging is made using safe-to-ingest bio-products or synthetic compounds. These include seaweed extracts, plant gums, microbial gums, animal and vegetable fats, oils, waxes, and essential oils. Additionally, many contain plasticisers, crosslinking agents or emulsifiers to improve their physical properties.

Edible packaging aims to preserve a product’s quality and lifespan by protecting it from contamination or damage. It can take the form of a thin, colourless, tasteless and odourless film that directly clings to a product’s surface or contains it.

Other forms of edible packaging include containers that can contain both liquids and dry goods. These are often made from flavoured edible materials and contain gelatins or starches to give them shape. Alternatively, they can be made of complementary foods that can be eaten alongside the products they contain, such as edible coffee cups, for example.

Both forms must be able to improve a product’s appearance, mechanical properties, and structural integrity, as well as its volatile flavour and aroma compounds. It must also protect the contents through shipping, product handling, and marketing while meeting food safety and packaging regulations.

An image of a PLA lined coffee bag made from sustainable packaging materials, sustainable coffee bags in an article on edible packaging and whether edible coffee packaging can reduce plastic waste

What are the pros and cons of edible packaging?

Edible packaging can have several benefits for consumers, businesses, and the planet. One of the most obvious benefits is its reduced environmental impact, which is why it appeals to customers concerned about their eco-footprint.

It provides a way to repurpose organic manufacturing byproducts that would otherwise end up incinerated or in landfills. Waste disposed of in this way produces greenhouse gases and other ecological hazards. Compared to traditional packaging, edible alternatives possess sensory, physicochemical and mechanical characteristics which improve the product’s shelf life and quality.

That said, edible packaging does have its pitfalls, especially when packaging specialty coffee. For example, there is the so-called Apple Principle, which dictates foods with edible exteriors should be cleaned before consumption. This may be a mental barrier for consumers to overcome. Additionally, some consumers may be unable to consume edible packaging because of food allergies or intolerances.

While edible packaging production and rollout may be cheaper than traditional packaging, it is still being tested extensively. This form of packaging requires considerable microbiological testing to determine it has no harmful microorganisms. More so, edible packaging will need to undergo allergen testing and evaluations to determine its nutritional content.

An image of a rice paper coffee bag, rice paper coffee packaging, coffee bags made from rice paper, edible coffee packaging, in an article on edible packaging and whether edible coffee packaging can reduce plastic waste

What are the best packaging options for coffee roasters?

When it comes to specialty coffee, edible alternatives are best suited as secondary packaging to complement a more robust primary exterior. This will ensure the product is handled hygienically throughout the supply chain. 

However, one of the most important things to consider is the business’s main sales avenue. For instance, if more coffee is sold online, edible packaging is likely to pass through several sets of hands before reaching the consumer. Many consumers may not feel comfortable consuming the product after this. 

Edible films may have the potential to be used as a form of packaging lining, but this requires extensive research and testing. Until such combinations become more accessible to roasters, it may be a good idea to invest in compostable or biodegradable packaging as an alternative to plastic. 

These sustainable materials are more readily available and have been tested for use in packaging ground coffee or whole beans. Put simply, sustainable coffee packaging is any type of packaging, whether a flat bottom pouch or a drip coffee bag, that reduces the carbon footprint and environmental impact of a business.

According to the World Packaging Organization (WPO), sustainable packaging must meet the functional and economic needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. This includes the whole supply chain, from basic function and marketing to end-of-life and reuse.

If you feel like you need to revisit your packaging options, MTPak Coffee can assist. Our range of eco-friendly coffee packaging options includes bags made from kraft paper, rice paper, or multilayer LDPE packaging with an environmentally friendly PLA lining.

Our coffee boxes are an ideal choice for roasters offering coffee subscriptions, blind-tasting boxes, and more. Made from recycled cardboard, our boxes are available in several shapes and sizes to suit your needs. 

Our coffee bags and coffee boxes can be customised to reflect your brand’s characteristics and provide customers with essential information about your coffees. MTPak Coffee offers a wide range of customisation techniques, including spot UV with a glossy, satin, or matte finish. We are also able to emboss, deboss, and hot foil stamp your coffee packaging in a variety of colours.

More so, we offer a quick turnaround time and low minimum order quantities (MOQs) for those looking to remain agile while showcasing a commitment to the environment.

For more information on sustainable coffee packaging, contact our team.

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